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Dolphin drives $32 million Clearwater aquarium upgrade

Winter the dolphin changed the fortunes of a once sleepy aquarium near Clearwater Beach.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 5:00 a.m. February 14, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Winter interacting with an Inspire guest.
Winter interacting with an Inspire guest.
Image via
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You’d be hard pressed to argue that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Pinellas County wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for a single dolphin.

Yes, the facility on Windward Passage in the city’s Island Estate’s neighborhood is internationally known, it draws millions of visitors every year and is a leader in the conservation of sea life. But the reality could have been different were it not for the rescue of that dolphin at Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral Dec. 10, 2005.

Her name was Winter.

“Without her, this wouldn’t have happened,” says Anthony Rivera, CMA’s chief operating officer. “So, we pay homage and respect to Winter every day, all day, because it wouldn't be reality without her. This building, what we’re able to do.”

Anthony Rivera is the chief operating officer at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Photo by Mark Wemple

The “what we're able to do” Rivera is referring to is a $32 million expansion CMA announced Feb. 6 that follows an $80 million renovation and expansion that began in 2020. 

The plan calls for building several new exhibits, bringing new animals — including sea lions and penguins — and starting work on a rescue center in Central America.

The expansion is set to begin soon after the facility’s new Manatee Rehabilitation Center is finished this spring.

Rivera says the expansion both allows the aquarium to “extend our footprint in conservation to address species that need our help” and to update part of the 51-year-old aquarium’s original building that is in “dire need of repair.”

“And that's where we are today, we are working on a part of the aquarium that is in need of” help, Rivera says. “That has forced our hand to have to do something either way. So, instead of returning it to what it was, we're returning it to something bigger for the future.”

Construction of the new exhibits will be staggered with the hope that the entire project will be done in five to six years.

What is old…

The aquarium, according to a history on its website, was first brought into being in 1972 by a group of local volunteers who wanted to create an educational center focused on marine biology. It was then known as the Marine Science Center — the name it kept until 1995.

It moved to its current site on Island Estates six years later. 

That’s when Clearwater donated an abandoned water treatment facility sitting on an inlet just off the Memorial Causeway which connects the city to the beach. Shortly thereafter marine biologist Dennis Kellenberger was hired as executive director and charged with creating educational programs and undertaking a major renovation.

The center opened to the public in 1981 and with it the first exhibit, fish from the Sea-Orama at the Clearwater Marina.

The Clearwater Marine Science Center years before it became an international attraction.
Image via

The first building was a far cry from the world class facility that visitors see today. But for those who visited in those early days, walking through that part of the aquarium today is a nostalgia-inducing trip to how things were back when you could ride your bike up to the front door and just walk in.

Everything changed in December 2015 when Winter, then three months old, was found entangled in a cab trap. She was transported to what was by then known as the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. While she survived, she lost her tail and two vertebrae.

Two years later she got a prosthetic tail and the rest became history when the book “Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again” was published in 2010.

In September 2011 the film "Dolphin Tale" was released and the aquarium and its main attraction became an international phenomenon.

A sequel, "Dolphin Tale 2," came out in 2014. Winter died Nov. 11, 2021.

…is new again

Today, the aquarium has undergone several renovations, taken on new projects and become a full-blown tourist attraction.

At the Feb. 6 announcement, the crowds weren’t heavy, but dozens of people were there browsing exhibits, watching animals and spending money on admission, food and, of course, the gift shop.

The aquarium had $113 million in total assets and $29.6 million in gross receipts in the most recent fiscal year, according to its public tax filings.

The penguin exhibit is one of several new attractions the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will build as part of a $32 million expansion.
Courtesy image

The numbers aquarium officials most likely want you to concentrate on, though, are these: more than 1,600 turtles rescued, and more than 810 animals released since 2010.

“I call it edutainment. We educate and we entertain at the same time,” says Rivera.

“Conservation and research are at the core of who we are. That will never change. We have our scientists out there doing the work, the conservation work. But we also understand in order to support those missions we need to drive people to the aquarium, entertain them. So, part of our (process) is we try to tie any entertainment to our mission to educate people.”



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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